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Meet the New Director of the National Hurricane Center, Dr. Gail Spinner

By: Jeff Masters 1:31 PM GMT on April 01, 2017

National Hurricane Center (NHC) director Dr. Rick Knabb announced last week that he was leaving NHC to take a position as The Weather Channel’s chief hurricane expert this summer. The excellent Dr. Knabb served ably for five years as NHC director, and will be missed. His successor has already been named—it will be Dr. Gail Spinner, the first-ever female head of the agency. Dr. Spinner comes from a distinguished career at the National Science Foundation-funded University Program for Hurricane Observations and Research In the Atlantic (UPHORIA), where she served a the lead scientist in their Boulder, Colorado laboratory. Her background is a colorful one; before earning her Ph.D. in Tropical Meteorology at the University of Alaska-Fairbanks, Dr. Spinner had a 4-year career as a professional ice skater for Stars on Ice. She also appeared last year on “Dancing With the Stars”, where former Texas Governor and current Secretary of Energy Rick Perry was her dancing partner (“good thing I wasn’t wearing ice skates for that”, she confided in an interview, “or I would have carved up his klutzy feet big time!”)

Figure 1. Outgoing National Hurricane Center director Rick Knabb speaks during a televised forecast regarding the threat of Hurricane Matthew in Miami. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)

Figure 2. Incoming National Hurricane Center director Dr. Gail Spinner puts on one of her spin moves at an Stars on Ice show on February 21, 2006 at the Palavela in Turin, Italy. Image credit: Yuri Kadobnov/AFP/Getty Images.

Dr. Spinner already swirling things around at NHC
At her first press conference, held Saturday at NHC headquarters in Miami, Dr. Spinner announced the first of several major changes for the organization. “I’m concerned that as the strongest hurricanes in the Atlantic aren’t getting the attention they deserve,” she announced, “particularly since climate change is expected to make the strongest storms stronger. In the Northwest Pacific, when their equivalent of a hurricane—a typhoon—reaches maximum sustained wind speeds of 150 mph, the U.S. Navy’s Joint Typhoon Warning Center calls the storm a ‘Super Typhoon’. Nothing beats the drama and attention a Super Typhoon gets when it bears down on a populated area, and deservedly so. Super Typhoons cause more than half of all the damage and deaths attributed to Pacific typhoons. Similarly, it’s been shown that in the Atlantic more than half of all hurricane damage is done by Category 4 and Category 5 storms, even though they make up just six percent of all landfalls. These storms should be called ‘Super Hurricanes’ to give them the notoriety and attention they deserve. As it stands now, the only ‘Super’ storm there has ever been in the Atlantic was Super Storm Sandy in 2012. Surely Hurricane Katrina deserved to be called ‘Super Hurricane Katrina’, don’t you think?”

When asked if NHC would consider expanding the Saffir-Simpson Scale to include a new “Category 6” designation, given that the climate change is expected to increase the number of super-duper Super Hurricanes, Dr. Spinner had an emphatic “no”. “We’re not going to expand the Saffir-Simpson Scale to add a ‘Category 6.’ I’ll give you three reasons for that. Number one, a Category 5 storm is already catastrophic, so there is nothing to be gained from a warning perspective from having a higher rating. Number two, NHC is trying to de-link the Saffir-Simpson Scale from the damages a storm can cause, since the storm surge of a hurricane often does not scale with the Saffir-Simpson winds. That’s why NHC is debuting new ‘Storm Surge Warnings’ this year, separate from the usual Hurricane Warnings for wind. And finally, we couldn’t use a Category 6 anyway, since some wise guys at Weather Underground trademarked the term.”

Jeff Masters


The views of the author are his/her own and do not necessarily represent the position of The Weather Company or its parent, IBM.